The Grammarphobia Blog

By Jove, here comes the coroner

Q: In your “by George” article, you fail to mention that the expression “by Jove” was probably a precursor to “by George.” Just thought I’d point that out.

A: Yes, you’re right that “by Jove” was a precursor to “by George”—chronologically speaking, if not etymologically.

We’ve written several times about mild oaths that use euphemistic substitutes for the name of God (“gosh darn it,” “for Pete’s sake,” “by George,” “good golly,” and others), including posts in 2008, 2011, and 2012.

However, we haven’t discussed “by Jove,” which wasn’t a euphemism when it first showed up in English. Here’s the story.

The phrases “by Jove” and “by Jupiter” were originally Latin oaths, pro Iovem and pro Iuppiter. These were used quite literally—not euphemistically—by the Romans to mean something like “my God!” or “good God!”

The supreme deity of the Romans was Jove or Jupiter, wielder of thunderbolts (he was Zeus to the Greeks).

In classical times, the name was written as Iovis or Iuppiter (Iuppiter was a compound of the archaic Latin Iovis and pater). There was no “j” in classical Latin. The letter “i” was both a consonant and a vowel; as a consonant, it sounded like the English letter “y.”

The Roman playwright Terence used the exclamation pro Iuppiter! several times in his plays.

In The Interjections of Terence (1899), Walter Russell Newton writes, “Pro generally indicates pain or grief, but sometimes anger, and less frequently joy.” In English, he says, it should be translated as “O.”

The exclamations “by Jove” and “by Jupiter” eventually filtered into poetic and literary English, but they were not euphemisms at first, since they invoked the name of an actual Roman deity.

The earliest English example for “by Jupiter” in the Oxford English Dictionary (spelled “Iuppiter” in Middle English) clearly uses the term in reference to the Roman god. Here’s the passage, from Chaucer’s poem Troilus & Criseyde (circa 1374):

“By þe goddesse Mynerue And Iuppiter þat maketh þe þonder rynge … ye be the womman … That I best loue.” (“By the goddess Minerva and Jupiter that maketh the thunder ring … you be the woman … that I best love.”)

The OED’s earliest example for “by Jove” also uses the term in reference to the Roman deity. Here’s the citation, from Apius and Virginia, an anonymous 1575 play set in classical times:

“By Ioue master Marchant, by sea or by land / Would get but smale argent if I did not stand, / His very good master, I may say to you.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In Elizabethan times, the exclamation “by Jove” was being used both as a mild euphemistic oath and as a reference to the Roman god. Shakespeare used it in eight of his plays, sometimes literally and sometimes euphemistically.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lord Berowne, an attendant to the King of Navarre, uses “Jove” euphemistically when he jokes about arithmetic with Costard, a country bumpkin: ”By Ioue, I all wayes tooke three threes for nine.”

And in Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1607), Antony refers to the actual Roman god when he addresses Thyreus, a messenger from Caesar to Cleopatra: “Favours, by Jove that thunders!  / What art thou, fellow?”

As for “by George” (a mild oath with “George” as a euphemism for God), the phrase began life in the late 1500s in a slightly different form. It was originally “for (or fore) George,” and later appeared as “before George,” according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play Every Man in His Humor: “I, Well! he knowes what to trust to, for George.”

The next Oxford citation is from John Dryden’s 1680 comedy The Kind Keeper: “Before George, ’tis so!”

The OED’s first “by George” quotation is from a 1694 translation of Rudens, a comedy by Plautus: “By George, you shan’t be a Sowce the better for what’s in it.”

Did the phrase “by Jove” influence “by George”?

Well, the use of “by Jove” as a euphemistic oath showed up about the same time as the euphemistic use of “for George.” But it took almost a century more for the “by George” version to show up.

We’ll skip ahead a bit now and give a couple of OED citations for “by Jove” from 19th-century novels:

“ ‘Venus and the Graces, by Jove!’ exclaimed Sir Sampson.” (From Marriage, 1818, by Susan Edmonstone Ferrier.)

And this one, from Wyllard’s Weird (1885), by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: “By Jove! here comes the Coroner.”

Since we can hardly improve on that, we’ll stop.

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